“Where the Latinos At?”: My Experience Echoed By José Olivarez


By Isa Gil, Social Media Editor

When my AP Lit teacher, Ms. Jaffe, told me a Latino poet was coming to our school, I knew I had to go. She talked about how José Olivarez was on the rise, and that his poetry embodies his experience as a Mexican-American.

She handed us two of his poems: “Mexican American Disambiguation” and “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At.” I chuckled. As a Latina, I have said that phrase many times substituting the word ‘Mexicans’ to ‘Colombians’ to match my cultural identity. In every AP or honors class I walk into, I look around me to see if anyone is Latino, but in most cases, it’s usually just me, myself, and I, a sad reality of the lack of representation of the Latino community in advanced classes.

As a young Latina woman, I rarely get to see people of my background in places of awe or admiration; instead, I see them on the news identified as rapists, drug-lords, or job stealers. Or when I am represented in the media, it is the stereotypical Latina: loud, feisty, and sexualized. I was not only excited to see a positive representation of mi gente but also a well renowned poet.

José Olivarez’s poetry not only spoke to me as a Latina but as a citizen in today’s world. He mentions pop culture, real-world events, famous people, love, mental health, and relatable things such as one’s love for cheese fries. His poetry is not only for Latinos as many may think when they read the title of his book, “Citizen Illegal,” but for people of all backgrounds, religions, and races. Although his book does identify with Latinos and that identity, his book addresses many different topics, while also being a source where others can understand what it means to live and struggle as a Latino in the world.

His poetry and book provide an outlet for people like me to see that we are not alone and that our struggles are valid. He perfectly describes the internal identity battle that Latino-Americans face when they are forced to “pick a side.” In his poem, “Mexican American Disambiguation,” he describes his own personal battle with identity being Mexican, American, and Mexican-American.

“…but that’s just the Chicano/ in me, who should not be confused with the diversity/ in me or the Mexicano in me who is constantly fighting/ with the upwardly mobile in me who is good friends/ with the Mexican American in me, who the colleges love,/ but only on brochures, who the government calls/ NON-WHITE, HISPANIC or WHITE, HISPANIC, who/ my parents call mijo even when I don’t come home so much.”

Olivarez, in a matter of eight lines, perfectly illustrates the feeling of living in two different worlds and not knowing exactly where you fit, whether you’re Latino or a first-generation immigrant from somewhere else. Either way, you’re looked at as “other” in America, but in your homeland, you’re looked at as a “gringo,” making you an outsider in both environments.

I relate to this paradox. I’m patriotic about my motherland, Colombia, but I will always be the “gringa” of the family to my cousins who live in Colombia because I grew up in the United States. On the other hand, I will never be truly American because I am Colombian.

Through his book, Olivarez depicts his life, struggles, and emotions while simultaneously maintaining a humorous tone that aids in conveying a powerful message to his audience. The book, although funny and relatable, makes you think deeper about pressing issues like gender, race, mental health, class, and immigration. This book is one that everyone should read to gain important perspectives on these topics.